Happy Birthday, John Steinbeck! Celebrate a literary great at the National Steinbeck Center

Things to Do — By mfitzsimmons on February 25, 2011 at 1:31 am

I’d be remiss not to blog about the cultural masterpiece that is the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, especially since his birthday is on Sunday, February 27th. John Steinbeck

Steinbeck grew up in this California rural city, which sits at the mouth of the Salinas Valley. The valley is fertile farming land and provided Steinbeck limitless inspiration for his novels. His father was Monterey’s County Treasurer. Steinbeck worked on ranches and alongside migrant workers, experiences he later recalled with life-like accuracy. He is very much a part of the place he opened the world’s eyes to in works like Tortilla Flat, East of Eden and Of Mice and Men. Hardly an American high schooler attended an English class that didn’t read one of his books.

Literary critics speak of a distinct sense of place in Steinbeck’s writing, borne from his close association with the locales he brought to life on the page. Many of these are right in the Central Valley, particularly Monterey and Salinas. The latter chose to honor its Nobel Prize winning son by erecting the National Steinbeck Center, the only museum in the country dedicated to a single author.

I was in high school the first time I visited the NSC. A beautiful, expansive glass-face facade beckons you to enter, drawing you in like a tractor beam. Six galleries are devoted to Steinbeck and are full of dynamic, 3-dimensional displays. Memorabilia from his time as a World War II correspondent, canisters from Doc Ricketts’ lab in Cannery Row, Steinbeck’s camper that he traversed theInterior of Steinbeck Center country with and recounted in Travels with Charley all bring the author to life and offer a penetrating look into what inspired him. This is a man’s life on display, but also a retelling of the places and people about whom Steinbeck told tales.

Interior of NSC

One of the six galleries at the National Steinbeck Center depicting the author's world

The exhibit I remember most vividly is in a wing of the museum centered on the lives of migrant workers and ranch hands, a favorite topic of Steinbeck’s. The main focus is on the divergent experiences of rich, white ranch owners and migrant, immigrant farm workers, something Steinbeck witnessed firsthand. An actual boxcar from a freighter train that carried lettuce across the country before the advent of semi-trucks sits splendidly in the room.

The chair of the National Endowment for the Arts said of the NSC: “This is really the best modern literary shrine in the country, and I’ve seen them all.” If my two cents count, it is one of the Top 5 best museums that I have been too as far as presentation, interactivity and cultural significance.

The NSC treats its subject lovingly, but Steinbeck is not the only one lavished with attention. It hosts exhibits of local photographers and painters works regularly. Beginning in April, a retrospective of Japanese history in Salinas’ Chinatown opens. Later this year, an exhibit of illustrated depictions Of Mice and Men goes up. These are just a handful of the unique and mesmerizing exhibits NSC welcomes every year.

Cover of "Tortilla Flat"

My favorite

In honor of what would have been his 109th birthday, what’s your favorite Steinbeck work? I’ll repost the best comments in a later blog.

Happy Birthday, John Steinbeck!

The National Steinbeck Center is located at One Main Street, Salinas, CA. Open 10am – 5pm, Monday through Sunday. $10.95/adults, $8.95/Seniors (over 62), students,
teachers and military with ID, $7.95/13-17, $5.95/6-12, Free/5 and under
. (831) 775-4721. http://www.steinbeck.org.

Tags: Cannery Row, Doc Ricketts, East of Eden, John Steinbeck, museum, National Steinbeck Center, Of Mice and Men, Salinas, Tortilla Flat